Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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Next month I will do the Stanza festival in St Andrews Scotland/. It's Scotland's biggest poetry festival. One of the events I'm doing will be a Poetry Breakfast with Ian Rankin, and Simon Armitage. I have thought about lyrics and poetry. I have argued about lyrics and poetry. Most lyrics don't work as poetry and it's not much fun trying to set poetry to music. The two aren't brother and sister, but they are sort of kissing-cousins. Don't even mention Bob Dylan. I've recently become a convert to Bob Dylan's stuff...thanks to Alec and Tai Chi Dave. What I realised is that I've always secretly liked some of it. Except for some of the words. Which I do like now. Sometimes. When, a few years ago, in an interview I said that I'd always preferred Manfred Mann's versions of Dylan songs, some people on a Dylan website seemed to become quite annnoyed with me. Good.
The Beatles were great lyricists. Especially Paul McCartney. But they don't read well. Or not to me anyway. Who cares though? They sing brilliantly. David Bowie writes great lyrics. Moonage Daydream. Great lyrics. What do they mean? Who cares? They sound great. Are they poetry? No. What does work on a page then? For me ? Seriously? Early Dr Feelgood does. Back In The Night. or You Shouldn't Call The Doctor if You Can't Afford The Bill Both of these songs are from their second album Malpractice.
"Back in the night / I lay down by your fireside/ Back in the night / Shook me like a landslide./ I nearly missed the early shift / Dreaming in the morning 'bout the things we did."
This has all the hallmarks of a great poem. Timeless stuff. Love, work, fireside, dreaming and two separate time zones melding into each other. Unsurprisingly, we find that Wilko Johnson(right up there with Keef in my top ten guitarists) was an English graduate and later, briefly an English teacher. I dimly remember one story from the 1970s of him using some of his pop star money in order to keep a set of Robert Browning manuscripts in the country. I went to check up on this, but I guess it was just a little too esoteric and too long ago for me to authenticate in a short time of research. My memory for such things is pretty good though. Anyone out there who could help confirm this story, please do.
My own job has involved lyric-writing and poetry. These days I find lyrics to be a lot more of a fiddle to do than poetry. Poetry was the first thing I wrote. From about aged 13 or so. I carried on mucking about with it till I was almost 20. I started writing lyrics when I was about 14. Lyrics sort of took over and I suppose, in the six or so years when I wrote no poetry at all. I just wrote lyrics. Lots of them. There was a burst of poetry writing in about 1979. Then I stopped again. Lyric-writing must have kept that particular mental muscle toned up, so that in 1988, when I really started writing poems again, winning a competition in the process, it wasn't an entirely alien concept to me. I never went to the ceremony to get my prize, I was helping a builder demolish a building. He paid me. So that night, I went out and drank Stella Artois instead. It was a Friday.
Most lyricists in rock bands get the job only because nearly everyone else in the band is semi-literate, or doesn't have a clue how to write lyrics...or simply can't be arsed. A handful of bands had the luxury of a band member who only wrote lyrics. Procol Harum had Keith Reid, The Grateful Dead had Robert Hunter. King Crimson had Peter Sinfield. Cream had Pete Brown who actually was/is a bona fide poet. If you study the ads in the back of music mags, you still see a fair amount of people who fancy themselves as lyricists. Mostly, unless they're musicians too, they ain't much use. This is because they don't have much idea of cadence or 'rattle'. They don't tend to know whether a line will 'sing' well. Johnny Clarke reckons that Chuck Berry is America's greatest living poet. I'm not sure whether I'd go quite that far, but he's a stunning bloody lyricist. He know exactly how cadence and rattle works. He sometimes even puts syncopation in his lyrics, which is some kind of poetic miracle. He does it too many times for it to be a fluke.
My jury's still out on Tom Waits. Fabulous words. Not sure if it's he, his wife, or the two of them together that write them. Black Market Baby from Mule Variations is a case in point. Reads pretty well on the page. Sounds great when sung. I have a lot to think about anyway, before I go off to Scotland shooting my mouth off about the subject.
The great Wilko Johnson..only the day before yesterday.
A hospital in the old days.
If I idle too long over the health supplements in the newspapers on Tuesday mornings it can get very confusing for me. There are for instance, a number of things that used to be bad for us that are now thought to be good for us. Conversely, there are other things that used to be good for us that are now bad for us.
Drinking: They've been shouting at us a lot about drinking. Especially since the sorry parade of faceless androids who currently govern the country got in. Drinking's actually quite good for you...especially a bit of red wine or some beer ....or some vodka. Although it does cause skin irritations, headaches, erectile dysfunction and a raft of other things. In moderate quantities though, it promotes benevolence, cures shyness-- and ugliness in your regular partner -- and of course it generally makes you a lovelier man and a much better fighter.
Sunlight:In recent years, the experts have become very afraid of sunlight. They've insisted that we plaster ourselves with high-factor sunblock cream. Today I find out, that many of us are not getting enough sunlight and that the corresponding vitamin deficiencies are making us all ill. So get out there in that sun, 20 minutes in the nude, every morning and sod the experts..and the law.
Germs: They were very afraid of germs. We should all be using some kind of anti-bacterial handwash and spraying all our household surfaces with the sprays. That's what they said. Now they reckon that we don't get exposed to enough germs...and that's why our immunity isn't functioning properly. I'm going to start keeping a chamber pot under the bed again. It just means I'll have to move the guitar cases, the crates of executive delay-cream and the blow-up doll,.I call her Wanda. Worth it though. Probably.
Smoking: They haven't come back to me on this one yet, but I reckon that smoking is actually good for the nation's health and it's only a matter of time before they tell us so. Why? Well for a start, if more of us smoke, we die earlier. The pensions pot therefore, won't have to stretch as far and there'll be more money left over for the National Health Service. There'll also be more people paying tax on the cigarettes, which means perhaps they can pay some cleaners to clean up the all the crap hospitals. Then maybe we can raise the pay of nurses, so we can get some posh ones again like Anita Harris and Julie Christie instead of the slack-jawed, semi-literate charvers spilling catheters all over the bedsheets like the ones we (allegedly) get today. More posh nurses handing out Senior Service full strength cigs on the wards, that's what we need. Oh and doctors should be encouraged to take up smoking pipes again, and standing around in tweed jackets poking at your open wounds with the mouthpiece, going: " Mmm.... yes, yes yes..mmm, I see." I'll tell you what: you never got the half the illness when everybody smoked, did you?
Worth Smoking For : Anita Harris
Exercise: Exercise is great. Going to work on a bike. Walking to the pub. Having a bit of 'rodeo-time' with the Russian au pair, when the wife's out carrying the shopping back from town (another form of valuable exercise). These are all good for you. What isn't good for you, is putting on a stupid tracksuit and then driving to a gymnasium. Unless of course it's a proper gymnasium, supervised by a man in black tights, a stripey grandad-shirt, a big handlebar moustache and hair all plastered down with macassar oil. A proper gymnasium needs coconut matting, a vaulting horse, a boxing ring and some sort of a treadmill -- or it's only a poncy beauty parlour, really, isn't it? Jogging is worse than useless. And you can forget yoga, pilates ( which I initially thought was an Italian side-order) reflexology and reiki (which is probably a Japanese watch). There are simple exercises you can do at home, of course. Punching yourself in the face is one. Even someone stuck in a bath-chair can strengthen their arm-muscles and face-muscles by the simple expedient of drinking out of a pint tankard with one hand and dragging on a cig with the other. Don't forget to change hands halfway through though. Same thing applies when you're 'dolphin waxing' by the way.
Drugs There are various drugs you can use these days. Most of them aren't any good. The best thing, though, from what I've heard, is probably to sell them to friends and neighbours. That way, you can quickly amass a bit of money and get your own private medical team to worry about your health for you. In the old days, which were much better, doctors used to freely prescribe opium and amphetamines. These used to be marketed under the names Phyllosan, Wincarnis and Yeast-vite. People easily lost weight but they knew how to relax in the evenings and they always slept well. Study any picture from the 1950s. These people, apart from being dressed terribly, always look slim... but crucially, happy and relaxed. Think about this. Oh and never mix LSD and sennacot. I say this from personal experience. Although cleaning-up the church hall afterwards usually provides good exercise, once you've been bailed by the police on your own recognisance.
Sex: Sex was better in the old days. Especially with a partner involved . A bit of 'how's yer father' after six pints of Double Diamond on a Saturday night used to be the only exercise the working classes ever got in the poorer towns of southern England. This was best done under the covers, in pitch darkness, with your cloth cap still on, and then finished by shouting "Wah-hey!" after you'd crashed the yoghurt truck. It was followed by you whining: "Any bread and dripping in the larder, Luv?" Nowadays everyone expects sex all the time, with the result that nobody really likes it anymore. Sex therefore, is bad for you now and you shouldn't do it. Ever.
Er sorry, that should have read: fame's eternal beadroll. ( Spenser ...probably) Never mind. It really does seem true that those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad -- or at least put on prime-time TV and then feature in the tabloids for a while. I have been ragging this idea around recently, like a Jack Russell terrier with an old towel, in a council house garden, say, somewhere in the Surrey, at about 3.02 of a November afternoon...just before the kids come home from school... with gunshot wounds.
"Why aren't you on Facebook?" I have been asked. This, with some hint of indignation and incredulity from those who have searched and yet, still not found me. Last night a colleague asked me the same question. He seemed concerned. "It would help you sell things. Websites are a bit old hat now. Everyone's on Facebook. You could soon build up 1000 'friends.'.You're missing out."
Yes, I thought. I could build up 1000 friends, two stalkers, some very boring correspondence and could disrupt my working day even more than it already is disrupted. I could sit at my desk saying," Here's a picture of me Frenching the letterbox down the road. Boy, was I trolleyed last night.". Then I could give all my preferences to market researchers, thereby saving them the job of polling me. After that I can give away all of my political leanings to the CIA, MI5, MI6 and voluntarily provide enough information for anyone to perpetrate a very elaborate series of cons or practical jokes on me. Why do it again though, when you can get all the info on my website? " But why am I not on Facebook?
I thought of the most arrogant answer I could come up with on the spot:
" Because." I said. "Facebook is for civilians."
Now I considered, as I have so many times before, the nature of Fame and its gauche brother, Celebrity.
Fame: That which accrues as the result of doing something well and becoming acknowledged for it.
Celebrity: The set of clothes that goes with your Fame and: "Hi! Did you know I have a measure of fame?" You don't have to put the clothes on though. No more than you need to put on a mortar-board and gown, just because you can read difficult books and do hard sums.
Now let us give thanks to God for these unlikely aids to the sanity of the journeyman writer or musician.
The X-Factor. I am thoroughly in favour of the X-Factor. Simon Cowell has provided an opportunity for all the civilians, pub-singers, bathtime singers and other members of the public previously known as 'the audience' to get up onstage and have a piece of the wedding cake, thereby freeing up the quieter backwaters of the arts for unpowered clinker-built vessels such as my own.
Big Brother: As above but for people who don't even sing or play anything.
Google: Google is great. If you are a medium range, working artist, musician or writer who is not particularly famous but who does have something of a track record, you no longer have to brandish your yellowed press-cuttings, old exhibitions, or records at a prospective interested party. You merely trust that they will Google you, to prove that you're not bullshitting. Similarly, people in say a pub, who may wish to find out exactly how much of a big-shot or never-were you are ...or never-weren't... can now go and do so at home. Because other people put you there. And you can get on with your lager in peace.
MySpace. MySpace allows everyone in a band, or with a musical axe to grind to go and 'sell their stuff on the Internet' thereby 'bypassing the system.' I myself only have a MySpace because someone put me there. I can't discuss anything on there because I'm not a member. Not only that, but because someone's already used my name first, I can't use it. Or not without a load of kerfuffle anyway.
Facebook is billed as a social networking site. I know a much better one though. It's called 'the pub.' And usually, if you haven't done anything too ghastly, the CIA and the marketing researchers aren't watching you in it.
Fame is useful in small measures. It gets you more work sometimes and reminds potential employers that you're still alive. Otherwise, it seems to be a fairly useless sort of thing. Celebrity is even worse. There is a poor young celebrity in the UK who is currently dying in the spotlight. She is front page stuff. It is decadence on a par with the last days of the Roman empire. And yet, as we sometimes say, there are no victims --only volunteers.
Listen: I write stuff. I play stuff. I sell a few records and books. Sometimes I broadcast or perform stuff. It all makes me under 20k a year. I don't owe any money to anyone. I'm quite right-wing first thing in the morning. I'm about Lib-dem by lunchtime. I'm Old Labour by the time I've had my first drink. I'm a raving anarchist if I stay too long in the pub and haven't had any food and I'm a 'don't know' once I fall asleep.I'm nearly 56 years old I'm just about rich and famous enough for me. I'm not on Facebook. I wasn't in the telephone directory for years, either. Now: Can we all get on please?
Julie Andrews, yesterday.